When Mexican President Felipe Calderón left office in 2012, the nation’s war on the drug cartels had already claimed 60,000 lives. Now, two years into the presidency of his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, security conditions are still far from praiseworthy, but have improved in several key areas.
Homicides, the most reliable indicator for measuring public security in Mexico, have steadily decreased over the past two years. According to Mexico’s Insituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (National Institute of Statistics and Geography—INEGI) the number of murders decreased 13 percent between 2012 and 2013, and the homicide rate per 100,000 people declined from 22 to 19.
Organized crime-related deaths have decreased even faster. According to the database of Lantia Consultores, a Mexico City-based public policy consulting firm, there were 1,956 organized crime-related deaths in the second quarter of 2014, down from a peak of 4,587 in the second quarter of 2011.
The pace of the decline in organized crime-related deaths has been especially encouraging in two key metropolitan areas. In Ciudad Juárez, once known as the world’s most violent city, organized crime-related deaths have dropped from a peak of 787 during the third quarter of 2010 to 54 in the second quarter of 2014—a 93 percent drop. Likewise, in the Monterrey metropolitan area, Mexico’s industrial capital, murders in this category dropped from 472 in the first quarter of 2012 to 38 in the second quarter of 2014. The improvement in Monterrey seems to be the result of a thorough revamping of state and local police departments, which is largely the result of aggressive lobbying by the city’s powerful business community. This demonstrates the potential of local institution-building efforts in Mexico. Even the U.S. Department of State acknowledged as much in its August 2014 Mexico Travel Warning, which stated, “Security services in and around Monterrey are robust and have proven responsive and effective in combating violent crimes.”1
Moreover, over the past two years, peace has returned to cities throughout northern Mexico to an extent that seemed impossible between 2008 and 2012. High-profile attacks, shootings and roadblocks are less frequent. (One exception is Tamaulipas, which experienced a violent crisis as recently as last April.) Unfortunately, data for crimes other than homicide remain unreliable in Mexico. Thus, it is very hard to assess whether the downward trend in murders extends to other violent crimes, especially kidnapping and extortion, which are foremost concerns for Mexicans.
The Peña Nieto administration has also recorded a number of important operational successes. The Zetas, a particularly violent cartel founded by defectors from elite military groups, have been nearly disbanded. (The decision to have federal forces target Zetas was taken at the end of the previous administration.)
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán—Mexico’s most notorious drug lord—was captured last February by Peña Nieto’s forces. His capture was skillfully executed and managed to avoid a violent conflict among factions of the Sinaloa Cartel. Some would argue that capturing such kingpins represents only a temporary setback to the cartels. However, such captures convey an important message: the Mexican state is only willing to tolerate so much violence or public notoriety, and it has the strength to prevail over drug lords.
Arguably, Peña Nieto’s biggest victory thus far has been the successful operations in the state of Michoacán in early 2014, which dealt a significant blow to the Knights Templar—a drug cartel that had exercised virtually uncontested influence over political and economic activities in the state for the previous two years. Former Governor Fausto Vallejo and several mayors have acknowledged that the gang extorted protection money from almost all 113 municipal governments. A stream of recently released videos featuring mayors, state-level officials and even Vallejo’s son talking and drinking with the Knights Templar leader, Servando “La Tuta” Gómez, seem to confirm the cartel’s tight grip over local and state authorities.
What made the Michoacán case particularly challenging was the emergence of armed self-defense groups in the Tierra Caliente region that organized to combat ever-increasing extortion by the Knights Templar. As the initial uprising rapidly expanded, a widespread civil conflict became a serious threat. The intervention of federal troops should have begun earlier, and was triggered only when self-defense groups were about to march on Apatzingán, the stronghold of the Knights Templar in the Tierra Caliente region, risking massive bloodshed.
However, since the arrival of hundreds of federal forces in Michoacán last January, stability and security have improved. Organized crime-related deaths decreased 40 percent between the first and second quarters of 2014, and another large reduction is expected for the third quarter. Several Knights Templar leaders and some of their political associates have been arrested, avoiding an extensive witch hunt. In an effort to restore the rule of law, the federal government created the Comisión para la Seguridad y el Desarrollo Integral en el Estado de Michoacán (Commission for Security and Development in the State of Michoacán), which has displaced the state government as the key decision maker in the region. The Commission has brokered a ceasefire with most self-defense groups, many of which opted to join the ranks of a legal rural police.
But while Peña Nieto has enjoyed some key victories when it comes to the cartels, his security strategy is still far from perfect. For example, the steep reduction in violence has not had an impact on public perception. The percentage of people who claim to feel insecure has hovered around 70 percent for the previous four quarters.
Moreover, the federal government has failed to develop a comprehensive strategy to strengthen the rule of law throughout the country, especially in rural and impoverished areas where some criminal organizations are seeking shelter and turning into local mafias. While the president has launched a program to fund violence and crime prevention, it is not clear that it will adequately target at-risk communities and individuals. And the new 5,000-strong Gendarmería Nacional (National Gendarmerie) unit of the Federal Police—inaugurated in August and tasked with fighting criminal activities especially harmful to the economy—is a shadow of the 40,000-member force originally proposed by Peña Nieto and is unlikely to have a major impact on the current security situation.
Despite these shortcomings, it is clear that the security picture is gradually improving in Mexico, especially along the U.S. border and in large metropolitan areas throughout the country. With four years left in his term, Peña Nieto will need to extend his gains in lowering homicides and pacifying conflict areas, and hope that public opinion begins to shift in his favor as a result.